Vanellope and Ralph

I love Wreck-It Ralph. I wasn't sure why I loved it until I rewatched it a couple days ago.

I thought I loved it because of Ralph's redemtive arc, his realization that your social status is not who you are, and that seeking validation from those who fail to see your value is fruitless and dangerous.

I thought I might love it because of Ralph's sacrifice. As a parent, it doesn't take much more than self-sacrifice to break my heart these days, and throwing yourself into a volcano to save your only friend certainly qualifies.

It turns out I love Wreck-It Ralph because of one particular line of dialogue. As the climactic race begins, Ralph reminds Vanellope that she doesn't have to win, she just has to cross the finish line to reset the game and be a real racer. Vanellope responds with a casual, defiant, and almost puzzled declaration, "I'm already a real racer."

Vanellope is very much the opposite of Ralph, both in stature and in attitude. Ralph embarks on adventure so he can return with the trappings of who he wants to be seen as. Vanellope embarks on adventure because it is who she already knows herself to be. 

Racers race. Heroes are heroic. These facts are independent of success or recognition. To be a thing is not incumbent on being recognized as the thing.

Parenting Dory

image.jpg

 Disclaimer: This page contains SPOILERS for the movie Finding Dory.

I sobbed in a movie theater today.

Like many families this weekend, my wife and I took our kids to see Pixar's latest animated feature, Finding Dory. I expected to have to escort at least one kid to the restroom mid-movie. I expected another kid to ask to sit on my lap. I expected at least one of them to get bored halfway through, and ask to go home. I did not expect to have my heart shredded to pieces, and cry uncontrollably.

I'm not a cry-at-the-movies kind of guy. I've written before about how becoming a parent has fundamentally altered the way I consume art -I think for the better, but I've never experienced anything like the feeling that crept through my body while watching a cartoon fish deal with mental illness.

I knew, as soon as it began, that my son, who will be five years old this fall, who we'll call Number Four today, was the source of my emotional reaction. He's smart, he's kind, he's chatty, and he does a wicked British accent. He also has a tendency to emotionally explode when things don't go as planned. He gets scared and embarrassed easily, and when it happens, he can't process anything around him. He screams, and the depth of his scream is enough to unsettle other children around him. When things go wrong, even slightly, the whole world falls apart for him. More than once, his classmates have remarked on his behavior. "He's a bad kid," they say.

Number Four has been working on his outbursts, and he's made some noticeable progress. It's a huge, frustrating, and exhausting undertaking to get this kind of help for a kid. We've had weekly meetings with a behavioral therapist, and we're working on having him evaluated for sensory processing disorder. We still don't really know what we're doing yet.

What does this all have to do with a Disney sequel, you ask? Finding Dory reveals in its opening scene, that when Dory tells Marlin in Finding Nemo, "I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family... At least I think it does... hm. Where are they?" it isn't a one time occurrence. In fact, Dory has spent her entire life meandering across the ocean, looking for a family she lost as a child. Dory, the comic relief, is immediately transformed into a gut-wrenchingly tragic figure, doomed to wander the ocean in search of a family she can't remember.

Throughout the film, as she begins to remember more about her childhood, it is revealed that Dory's parents, who do not share her affliction, worked tirelessly to teach her to cope with it. They practice behavioral skills, and construct a trail of shells in case she gets lost. It was during this scene that it dawned on me what I was watching. The first slice cut through my heart as I watched a computer animated fish version of myself cheerily tell my child how to find a way home. The cuts kept coming. Dory blames herself for getting lost as a child and I hear my son's voice, as he comes down from a fit, "I'm stupid! Why do you even want me in this family!?"

The final cut comes as we see another flashback of Dory's childhood. She overhears her parents talking, her mother in tears, weeping for fear that they have not done enough, that perhaps they cannot ever do enough, to keep their daughter safe in a world she can't quite connect to. I knew that feeling. The fear that your child won't be able to keep friends. The fear that your child could be in danger because they don't see the world like the rest of us. I knew that helpless feeling. I recognized it well, and the tears came.

There are people who will see this movie and never give it a second thought. It'll get lost between the goofy sea lion gag, and the cuddling otters gag. They won't equate those fish to the people struggling all around them. A few years ago, I might not have made the connection, either. I see it now. I hope others will see it too.

As the tears came, I held my son tightly; he was on my lap, bored, and wanted to go home.

Ramblings: Certainty & 'The Book of Life'

image.jpg

Having kids sometimes means watching and re-watching the same movie over, and over again. Most recently, my kids have fallen in love with 'The Book of Life' and I've seen it about a dozen times over the last couple months. It's not a perfect movie, in fact, it's thematically criminal in handling its female lead, but I find it immensely enjoyable, even after all these viewings. I've struggled to find the impetus for such a connection and I think today's viewing cemented it for me.

In the film, Manolo Sanchez wrestles with his family's, and society's, expectations of manhood and success. Ten years ago, I would have identified with Manolo, but today I find myself more concerned with Manolo's father, Carlos, who, despite a disparity in their approach to bullfighting ethics, is a good, loving parent. What I connect to about Carlos' situation, or more accurately, what I envy about it, is that Carlos learns, with absolute certainty, that he has been wrong. 

I don't believe that I'm a bad father, but statistically, I have to be doing something wrong, and an inability to recognize what that could be, is frustrating. Just once, I'd like my children to confront a giant skeletal bull, and explain to me, through a spontaneously composed acoustic guitar performance, all the things I've gotten wrong as a parent. It's a completely unreasonable request to make of the universe, but it can't hurt to ask, though I'm pretty sure I won't get the answer I'm looking for, in fact, I'm certain of it.